Abortion (lack of) rights in New Zealand: One Story

There’s so much pressure on women to be amazing all-rounders – the working mother of countless TV commercials who has the energy to cook, clean, and bake, all the while balance a fulltime job – you’d think that with that pressure might come the assumption we’re capable of making decisions about our own bodies and our own fertility.

You’d be wrong. In New Zealand 2015, women are still not trusted to make the choice of whether you can access an abortion or not.

In fact, abortion is still in the Crimes Act. This means that it’s illegal to get an abortion unless it’s organised in a certain way that meets the criteria of the law. A woman has to go through their GP, who will then refer them to two certifying consultants, and it is these certifying consultants who determine whether you fit the criteria for an abortion. This process can be straightforward – if you’re lucky. If you’re not, it can be complicated, expensive, and humiliating.

The perception among many women is that the process for getting an abortion is straightforward – but it’s not. This is something a close friend of mine found out recently when she found out she needed to have an abortion. She found this very process harrowing, painstakingly uncertain, and totally diminished her sense of control over her own life.

I want to tell her story here to remind us all of the everyday human stories across this country behind why we campaign for a woman’s right to choose, and to insist on my friend’s – and all women’s – right to dignity. We shouldn’t have to put up with this situation.

The first thing my friend did when she realized that she was pregnant was to Google “abortion” and the name of her town to find out information. She wanted advice on all the facts and procedures for an abortion. We all use Google like this – it’s the White Pages of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately for her, the top link was the website for Pregnancy Counselling Services – an antiabortion front. Their counseling amounts to guilt tripping women who need to have an abortion. They ‘advised’ her that women who have abortions are more likely to get breast cancer and suffer depression. Neither assertion has any scientific evidence to back that up. Their ‘counselling’ was harassment by any other name.

No one should be questioned about their reasons for needing an abortion. No one should be made to feel guilty for getting one. It should be the woman’s choice and her choice alone. One would expect questions from an antiabortion front like Pregnancy Counselling Services, but not from a GP.

But this is exactly what happened when my friend when to see an after-hours doctor.

After getting harassed from the ‘counselling’ hotline, she went to an after-hours clinic to find out what would be involved in getting an abortion if she decided she needed one. The GP was completely negligent in the advice he gave. He did not refer her to the two certifying consultants who would be able to approve an abortion for her. He did not inform her of the clinics in the area she lived that would carry terminations. He did not give her the control that she would need for her choice. Instead, he simply sent her away with referrals for blood tests and a scan, saying that she still had time so she should ‘think about it for a couple of more weeks’ with more guilt-inducing questions like, ‘would it be so bad having another child?’

Not referring my friend to certifying consultants was negligent. Asking her to sit on it for a couple of weeks goes beyond the pale. Any health professional would know that the procedure is safest if it’s done in the first ten weeks. Her GP was totally remiss in this advice to her, and worse, he played the ‘gatekeeper’. Instead of giving her that control and decision as to whether to go ahead with the procedure, he held onto the reigns.

At this stage, he could have arranged the appointments with the two certifying doctors. It’s a lengthy enough process, and the hoops that she would have to jump through would have given ample time for my friend to ‘think about it’. Instead he took it upon himself to make a decision about the timing of events in her life.

Not knowing what is involved in the getting an abortion is nothing new. In fact, ‘a lack of information about abortion services’ was a problem that the Federation of Women’s Health Councils reported to the Ministry of Health well over two decades ago, in this report (PDF).

The report is a sobering read. The issues that the Council point out are distressingly similar to the problems that my friend faced in 2015, more than two decades later.

In the end she went to a private clinic. And they did everything the GP should have done in the first appointment. But they are not government funded, which meant she needed to pay for private medical fees.

In some ways she was lucky. At least she had the money to arrange the termination privately. Even though it took six weeks for her to jump through all the hoops, at least she could get the termination before 10 weeks. She is fortunate to live in an urban centre where there are hospitals and clinics that carry terminations. Spare a thought for women who live in rural areas of Northland, Southland or the west coast of the South Island, who need to travel hours for the same procedure. At least she had the support structure to be able to put her children into care when she was having her termination. And at least she was between jobs so she didn’t need to ask for time off every time she had to jump through yet another pointless hoop in the termination process.

What the figure of close to 15,000 terminations per year doesn’t tell you is the hours and hours women waste by having to jump through these hoops to get an abortion. It also doesn’t tell you the number of women who simply couldn’t access a termination because they were unable to go through this whole time-consuming and tedious procedure because of financial or other personal constraints.

Her sobering experience is the norm, not the exception. All the more reason why we need to the change the laws and why we need to continue to talk about abortions.

For information on abortions and the procedure, Family Planning has this comprehensive booklet (PDF)

If you are pregnant and thinking about what to do the Abortion Law Reform Association links page gives you recommendations for sites run by non-judgmental professionals who will give advice on all your options:

This site is also useful to get an overall sense of what the process involves.

To become involved in the campaign to change the laws around abortion, come along to this Pro-choice conference in March in Wellington hosted by ALRANZ.